Nome hears potential for small-scale nuclear energy
By Peter Loewi
Just two weeks after the topic of Nome being powered by a micro-nuclear reactor came up during a meeting with the Governor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power Gwen Holdmann, was back in town to give a presentation to the public on the potential of such a project. Holdmann is the author of a recent study, and its decade old predecessor, on use cases of nuclear energy in Alaska. With her was Richelle Johnson, an economist at UAA.
The meeting, hosted by Nome Joint Utilities System and framed as a community discussion on power, attracted only a small audience to City Hall but they engaged in a hearty discussion, lasting two and a half hours. All five members of the NJUS Board, one member of Common Council, and four local residents not affiliated with a public body joined the mayor, city manager, and NJUS assistant manager. There is currently no plan to use nuclear energy in Nome. Even with a two to three-year licensing process, Holdmann expects reactors to be deployed and operating in the next five to 10 years.
As part of her presentation to the Alaska State Legislature, Holdmann has a road map with four key questions: Does the technology exist? Is it safe? Is it economical? And is it responsible? Her presentation to Nome was largely based around those four questions, as well.
What’s the status of the technology?
Nuclear energy has been used for power for almost 70 years and is currently used in over 30 countries. In the USA, it generates 20 percent of all electricity, about the same as all renewables combined. It has also been in use in Alaska before, in the 1960s at Fort Greely. In the mid-2000s, Galena asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to look into approving a small reactor there, but that proposal ended when their Air Force Base closed.
Conventional nuclear power plants are extremely expensive and slow to build. Instead, research and industry are shifting towards developing “microreactors.” The definition isn’t solid, but the U.S. Department of Energy website says it generally means a plant producing one to 20 megawatts. A proposed reactor at Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks is expected to be around five megawatts, or roughly the output of one of the Wartsila diesel generators currently used by NJUS. By comparison, the smallest and largest nuclear power plants currently operational in the U.S. generate roughly 500 megawatts and 4,000 megawatts, respectively.
Holdmann explained that the designs for microreactors are still being tested, but the technology is well-known. They are being designed to be manufactured off-site and then transported; they use passive safety measures, a major difference from previous, larger nuclear power plants; they require minimal staffing and, like the larger reactors, can go long intervals without refueling.
Nuclear energy is fundamentally different from chemical energy because chemical reactions, such as burning diesel, only rearrange electrons in the atoms, whereas nuclear energy comes from the rearrangement of the nucleus of the atom, hence the name “nuclear.” In reactors, that energy is used to heat a fluid, which spins a turbine, which is then converted through a generator into usable power.
Are they safe?
Conventional nuclear energy, despite the fears caused by big name disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, is said to be safe. An infographic from the International Atomic Energy Agency says that a Terawatt hour of energy produced by coal and oil results in 24.6 and 18.4 deaths respectively. Nuclear, however, only results in 0.03 deaths for the same amount of energy produced.
Holdmann was quick to point out and careful to explain that nuclear energy sources are very different from nuclear weapons and are structured so they cannot explode. None of the three major nuclear energy disasters were explosions, but meltdowns. Microreactors do not contain enough fuel to reach a temperature which would result in such an event.
The fuel itself didn’t garner much attention during the presentation or discussion but features an interesting safety mechanism. Called TRISO, short for Tristructural Isotropic particle fuel, it is made up of poppy-seed sized pebbles of a mix of uranium, carbon and oxygen encased in several layers of ceramics. The pebble produces heat but cannot spread material which could contaminate outside of the pebble.
What isn’t known yet is what safety requirements the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC for short, will ask for. Galena’s project paved the way for the NRC to start looking into microreactors in remote settings, but as no project has officially applied for a permit yet, specifics are still unknown. Tests of the technology are going on at places like the National Reactor Innovation Center, but an upcoming project at Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks will likely be the first one to go through the NRC process.
Is it economical?
Without one having been built yet, the answer is unknown, but Holdmann explained that companies think they can make it economical. “The truth is, none of these reactor companies would be doing this work if they didn’t think they could be competitive,” she said. This is especially true if you look at harnessing heat and reducing emissions.
The eVinci, designed by Westinghouse, can be built, maintained and fuel a reactor for 10 years for $100 million. The eye-watering sum breaks down to $10 million per year. In comparison, NJUS bought 1.7 million gallons of diesel at a price of $7.7 million this year. Johnson, the economist, explained that microreactors are looking to produce power in the 10 to 40 cents per kilowatt hour range. According to a NJUS report, the 10-year low was 30 cents per kilowatt hour, and the high was 40.
As was mentioned in the meeting with the Governor, some parts of Alaska which have inexpensive electricity use it for space heating instead of using oil-burning heaters, which is also a significant cost to residents. Reducing the cost of electricity and switching to electric space heating could also reduce individual fuel costs and emissions.
Everyone involved in the design and testing of microreactors is waiting for projects to start to see just how much they cost, and Holdmann explained that there are benefits to being the first. Since the state, federal government and reactor manufacturers also wants to see how the projects are implemented, there are ample opportunities for having costs subsidized.
Holdmann also proposed, should the City ever start speaking with manufacturers and providers of nuclear energy, that Nome proactively tell them what can be afforded, and try to have the provider make it work.
With a number of partners including the NRIC at Idaho National Labs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, and ACEP, Holdmann offered to do a “robust analysis” for Nome on what this could look like. It would be a report prepared by economists looking at the economics, not by engineers looking at actual technology. By request of audience members, the study will also look at comparing the costs to increase wind and solar power, such as Kotzebue is implementing. No vendors would be involved in the study.
Is it responsible?
In many ways, this is most difficult question, and it was also the least discussed question. There are clear social and environmental responsibility questions, but it was talked about in terms of national and local responsibility.
All nuclear fuel is owned by the federal government. It is the responsibility of the federal government to manufacture new fuel and store used fuel. Currently, used nuclear fuel is generally stored on site as the Department of Energy looks at long-term storage options. The best-known candidate for storage of nuclear material, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has repeatedly been deemed environmentally unsafe and socially irresponsible for its sacred significance to the Western Shoshone and Paiute tribes. Additionally, even if the price of fossil fuel dropped in Nome, the federal government has carbon emissions reduction goals, potentially another source of funds to switch to a clean energy source like nuclear.
But the biggest responsibility discussion was focused on mining and impact on the region.
The port expansion project needs can be met by the current NJUS capabilities. However, any sort of load needed if Graphite One were to proceed would need addition capabilities, which puts the community between a rock and hard place. Carl Emmons said that “if you look at Donlin, and Pebble, and all those kind of mines, there’s a lot of opposition. Look at what happened to Rock Creek, I’ll be real amazed if…” Another community member jumped in and finished his sentence. “…if it actually happens.”
The report that Holdmann and team will produce will focus on the economics, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Future energy needs and development must be balanced with a social and environmental responsibility to what is already here. “We need to really have some kind of consensus on what direction we’re going as a community,” Nome Mayor and NJUS Manager John Handeland said.
Holdmann and Handeland have more discussing on the details of the study, but as of last week they expected it to be completed later this year. When it is, there will be a presentation on the economic side and an opportunity to discuss the bigger picture, as well.